‘You have to help me Mr White. I have no idea what we’ve been talking about!’

On lesson observations and paracosmic compliance…

Mr Wilson left my lesson smiling, and nodding.  This time, I’d hit the jackpot. My annual graded lesson observation was clearly outstanding!

I had taught the fluidity of identities in postmodern sociology in a dramatic way. Actual blocks of ice slowly melted as students listened, enthralled, by my explanation of Bauman’s Liquid Lives. There was a free-flowing (!) discussion afterwards and a palpable buzz in the room. 

The door clicked shut behind him.

Emily Johnson waited patiently until he was safely out of earshot. 

‘You have to help me Mr White. I have no idea what we’ve been talking about!’

I laughed. The other students laughed. In truth, I was somewhat deflated! For a moment I believed a little too hard in the simple reality of the inference (1*!) which my line manager and I had drawn from the previous thirty minutes of teaching.

For a time, in English schools, there was a particular emphasis upon measuring and then raising the quality of individual lessons. Outstanding lessons became the building blocks with which leaders and policy makers constructed their educational edifices. If you were a teacher in England during this era you will no-doubt recall high stakes graded lesson observations. A senior member of staff, trained in recognising outstanding lessons, would observe and grade lessons from 1-4.

The lesson is a unit or episode in schooling with which we are all familiar. It can be readily brought to mind and animated. Solutions and strategies built with this unit appear substantial, self-evident even. It is easy to imagine a successful lesson and the learning that it produces in a class. The ease with which we can visualise the lesson process leaves us particularly susceptible to the illusion of explanatory depth. Superficial familiarity with a complicated process can induce a false sense of understanding. In reality we know rather less about the mechanics of learning, less still about the mechanics of multiple learners responding in disparate ways to the same ‘teaching’.

During these graded observations, Teachers had two discrete tasks. Firstly, teaching the class, and secondly managing the inferences being drawn by their observer. After the observation, a dance ensued.

The feedback meeting.

So…how do you think that went? Was often the observer’s first step. 

From here, a skilled observee may have been able to take the lead.  They would steer the process towards an outstanding finale – by framing the lesson in a positive light using the language imposed by whichever grading criteria were in play. Perhaps there was a buzz, perhaps it was evident that all students were making progress, perhaps there were clear hinge-moments in which teaching responded to formative assessment.

Others, with less experience, less gravitas, or greater faith in the judgement itself would be led by the observer. The quality of their teaching explained to them by their line manager on the basis of perhaps a 30 minute episode and select moments, pupil questions, comments, work and other proxies therein.

The observer, tasked with drawing a clear judgement from patchy information was faced with a deceptively simple task. They may have been aware of the limited reliability of the process. They may not. Either way, countenancing this troubling issue would only hamper their capacity to complete it. The lesson observation process discouraged such thinking, and in providing a neat abstraction – a numerical measure of teaching quality – provided clarity around a complex issue.

In ‘Obliquity’, John Kay (an economist!) points out that economists generally question reality if reality fails to correspond to their theoretical models and predictions of it! In the meetings following graded lesson observations, the discussion which followed was a collective, or autocratic attempts to achieve the same end.  The lesson was made to fit the model.

Ensuring coherence with the dominant silver-bullet solution often became the end towards both parties work (knowingly or unknowingly). We needed to make the lesson fit in with an imaginary world in which lessons could, and should be consistently ‘outstanding’.

An unsatisfactory explanation:

Despite their initial allure, Graded lesson observations in particular didn’t work properly. Not least because of their unreliability (sommething Prof Rob Coe explores here), and because high stakes further distorted the measure.

But the craze emerged and failed because of a wider dynamic. It was merely one episode in education’s serially monogamous relationship with simplistic solutions.  These solutions offer explanations of the problem with teaching which have alluring, but ultimately illusory, depth.

The lesson grading training which some of us went on might have initially produced what psychologist Frank Keil calls an ‘Aha’ moment. There is a rush of understanding when we first see how a particular explanation fits together. Aha, of course, outstanding teaching is the key to ensuring that all students learn successfully. However this intuitive sense of comprehension is misleading. In reality our understanding is less complete (or shallower) than we believe. The explanation was shallow and failed to stipulate the mechanism by which it could actually work.

The explanation of teaching which the process framed was superficial. It had illusory depth.  Where proxies of outstanding teaching were identified, there was not a mechanical explanation of how they could induce learning in multiple unique individuals at once. Where proxies of learning were highlighted (everything from detailed answers/performances to a palpable ‘buzz’) there was a similar gap in identifying quite how this could be produced. ‘And then some magic happens.’  This ‘explanation’ of teaching was inadequate. It failed to engage with the inherent complexity of teaching disparate individuals specific ideas within a fixed timescale.

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Descriptions of the features of outstanding lessons were essentially a ‘design stance’ explanations masquerading as a mechanical ones. A design stance (or teleological) explanation describes a process by emphasising the ends towards which individual components are directed. I.e. ‘The teacher differentiates appropriately’ ‘Explanations ensure progress in learning for all.’ These are design oriented explanations or descriptors. They indicate an intended end. They are not mechanical explanations – a mechanical explanation would instead emphasise the specific actions a teacher takes and the effect this has on individual learners. (Keil explores the implications of these Dennett’s ‘stances’ here.

Why were the limitations not immediately obvious?

The self-referential nature of the dialogues (or judgements) which teachers and leaders were involved in discouraged analysis of lesson grading itself as a means of monitoring and improving teaching quality. This was in part due to the complex and, arguably, imbalanced relationships in our educational system. The onus on making an alluring solution ‘fit’ pushes down. There is not, a commensurate feedback mechanism for modifying the solution to match reality pushing back up.

If a teacher’s lesson was not ‘outstanding’; or if a school recorded a troubling number of unsatisfactory observations, or if Ofsted visited and concluded the same; then a problem was immediately apparent. The pressure was on to align with the solution. However, if the act of compliance (in this case to graded lesson criteria) were having no impact, or worse a latent negative impact, upon lessons this would not be apparent for some time. Possibly never.

The teacher’s role in this process was not one which invited critical engagement. Whether or not they agreed with the premise, its validity was generally off-the table in the follow-up meeting and judgement of their teaching. The professional closest to the complex reality of schooling, often had to work hard (consciously or unconsciously) to ensure that this messy world aligned, with a simplistic conjecture of outstanding teaching.

Some dismissed it as a minor annual irritant. A hoop through which to jump before returning to business as usual. One teacher friend rolled the same lesson out each year, regardless of year-group or time of year. (It worked). Others gave it rather more credence than it should have been afforded.

The latter position is more common we might first think. Inexperience, the isolated nature of the teaching experience and a deference to the knowledge and seniority of ‘superiors’ (school leaders or those who create the latest criteria) can all contribute to uncritical credence in the validity of the inferences which flawed processes actually afford. This was me for a while. I laboured through my lesson plans trying to spark the magic which my line-managers would be looking for. Eventually, as I became more experienced (and gained other sources of positive professional identify reinforcement) I came to treat the process more sceptically. But at this point, I probably jumped too quickly to dismiss senior leaders who continued to carry these high-stakes gradings out.

They were just doing their job. They may have had reservations about the process, or may not. Either way, a role premised upon tracking and improving the quality of teaching across a school necessitated clear judgement about the same. Lesson grading afforded a feasible route by which this could be carried out. Furthermore, Ofsted, also leaned on this data, cross-referenced against their own judgements when grading an entire school.

The focus of the meeting become managing the imagined school. Immediately, the imagined school as conceived by the observer. Later in relation to the collective imagination of the wider leadership team, perhaps the teacher who was observed, perhaps other members of staff. Of course, accountability dynamic further distorted this measure. Ofsted would also grade lessons and it was important that a schools’ internal records of teaching quality aligned with the ratios harvested during an inspection.

My line-manager’s job largely entailed constructing and maintaining a ‘paracosm‘ an imaginary world (with links to the real one). This world was one where simplistic solutions could and should ‘work’ as this ‘evidenced’ the quality of our school. That ‘1’ that he recorded indicated, that for one year I was one of the school’s ‘outstanding’ teachers.

Have we learned from this episode?

Not adequately.

The underlying problem is not really to do with lesson observation as such. It is driven by the paradox at the heart of the school improvement challenge. We do not know as much about learning as we would like. We know less about how to facilitate learning in groups of people simultaneously. Learning, even defined narrowly as long-term change to the brain – is often hidden, and only becomes apparent in the long-term.  Schools, from a design stance, may be seen as places where students learn. But their particular form, the activities which happens within them, and the diverse lived experiences of students, teachers, parents, leaders, policy makers represent a messier reality.

Simultaneously, the school system is populated with roles which demand action and clarity despite our fundamental unknowledge of exactly how they should (and do) work.  From within these roles, it is perhaps possible to look back, with hindsight, at the inadequacy of earlier failed solutions. For example,many of us are as now as sceptical about the data wave, as we are about lesson grading. However, we are not exempt from the challenge. The way in which we imagine our role, the concepts and patterns we recognise, the specific demands of our jobs, and the dominant ideas imbibed from training courses, accountability measures and the wider educational discourse appear rather more solid than are actually the case. We need to act, and need a wider context which informs (or at least rationalises) our actions.

Leadership roles can all to easily drift into an exercise in paracosmic compliance. We work hard ensuring that the imaginary world which we create and document, aligns with dominant ideas of what a good school should be.   This process is clearer than the more complex challenge of actual school improvement. As a collective endeavour it can gain a faux solidity. Improving lesson gradings can seem substantial, as could improving the accuracy of exam predictions, or ensuring consistency across curriculum statements.

The monopoly afforded to dominant solutions – in no small part amplified by accountability measures – is expedient in some ways. It allows for clear judgements, clear solutions, and clear narratives to be told explaining the problem with school and how to solve it. But it comes at a cost, the strain across a system where we attempt to shoehorn reality into the form we have been told it should take – if we’re doing the job properly.  

The problem, in as much as there is one, is not the existence of imagined worlds. We need internal models, abstractions, or maps to help us make sense of and act within a complex system.  The issue is that we often forget (or never learn) that this is what we are doing. As a result contrasting models; information which doesn’t fit how we feel things should be; and the disparate experiences (an imagined worlds) of others can all appear as a threat to our efficacy rather than merely being reminders of the complexity of schooling.

So what?

The imagined worlds which matter most are those constructed by our students. They will be diverse and sometimes surprising of course. Regardless of whether I imagine myself to be teaching an outstanding lesson, targeting students for intervention, or carefully sequencing my curriculum, it is likely that some of my students will love learning psychology. Some will take pride from their learning. Some will be bored in my lessons and most will forget most of what I teach them (regardless of how powerful I deem it to be). All will learn in unique and surprising ways. All will continue to learn and grow after the 100 or so lessons they spend with me fade in their memories. But, we understand that that’s kind of the point. School provides a controlled environment in which students are exposed to and construct new understandings (abstractions) of the world. Teaching, as Mary Kennedy points out is a human improvement profession we can expect the process to be somewhat messy and unpredictable.

Emily Johnson helped remind me of the complexity of teaching. I discussed the incident with friends afterwards.  But in my lesson observation meeting remained quiet on the matter, and let the ‘1’ stand! The context did not leave room for such discussion. I am skeptical of explanations of, solutions to, schools’ ills which fail to leave space for messiness. Stories and solutions premised on lesson gradings, data tracking and curriculum mapping can easily fall foul of this problem. I would like to think that it’s possible to bring more nuanced and reflective sense-making into professional conversations.

The how is complex.

I suspect that there’s much more to consider in terms of ego development. Just as students need different models and instruction at different stages of development, the same is true of adults too. Neil Gilbride’s work in this area is definitely worth exploring further. There are times when teachers need clarity and simplicity in being told or shown what to do. Especially early in careers. For example, if in my lesson observation pupil behaviour had been ‘off the wall’ I probably would have benefited from practical, direct instruction on how to improve in that area. Nevertheless, in the main, professional dialogue can benefit from being more a collaborative sense-making endeavour rather than an exercise in paracosmic compliance.

There are also likely lessons to learn for leaders in relation to line-management relationships. How do we ensure that our support and management genuinely are supportive? It is easy to get distracted by imaginary school maintenance rather than more meaningful work. Once this happens, our interventions are likely to be viewed as irritating and largely irrelevant demands. Role out a buzzy lesson. Change some of those predicted grades. Write a curriculum statement.

There are further implications for accountability measures. The dictate the rules of a game which schools often feel compelled to play. The lesson observation game was largely shaped by a need for schools to record good and outstanding teaching if they were to fare well in inspection. The data game did the same for internal data. The Covid19 delayed curriculum wave may risks doing the same for curriculum sequencing and statements.

I am in the final few weeks of my current teaching role. After Easter I start in an AHT position, with a view to eventually becoming a head-teacher. One lesson I will hopefully take into the role is not to take myself, or the imagined school I construct too seriously. In ten years, dominant ideas will change and I’ll likely look back at much of this era just as I now do at the lesson grading moment above.  

However, the students who pass through the school every few years only get one cycle. And the staff embarking on their teaching careers only do so once. Fostering an environment which supports them, and helps them to grow will always be important. This does require some imaginary school building – bringing structure, familiarity, routine and purpose to their daily experiences. But humility and collaboration are also important. Perhaps, being forewarned will help. We need to be wary of perceived or real pressure to practise paracosmic compliance!

The Red Bead Problem:

Pat has tremendous potential but is clearly coasting. Horst used to be so steady but something must be up. Steve never really got going – this job is just not for him….

W Edward Deming’s ‘red bead problem’ reveals the pitfalls we can fall into when judging performances with a precision that exceeds the validity of the inferences we can actually make from the measures available. 

A group of ‘workers’ are all given a specialised paddle – a board with 50 circular depressions in it.  Their job is to put it into a container of red and white beads and take it out. Beads settle into each of the depressions. Successful outcomes are white beads, red beads are to be avoided. 

There are 4 white to every 1 red bead in the container. On average, with each dip of the paddle, workers pick out 10 red beads. But there is considerable variation offering alluring but spurious trends and differences in workers’ performances. There are apparently fantastic workers (who get promoted) and terrible workers (who get retrained and eventually sacked if performance doesn’t improve).  It’s tempting to infer a narrative about each worker. See an example set of results (from a rather less diverse era!) below.

You can watch it here. There is a brief explanation (emphasising the behaviour of ‘willing workers’ here

Despite our human tendency to infer narratives emphasising individual agency, the variation in outcomes here is entirely random. The inferences made by the managers in this exercise are spurious. But they do have a special power. What J L Austin would call illocutionary power. The speech-act of grading a worker brings into being a social fact. (Dylan Wiliam explores this idea in relation to pupil assessments here)

One of the messages which Deming drives home with this unsubtle parable is that variations in performance levels are more attributable to systemic than individual factors. A second is that in real world settings we cannot expect random variation to be evenly distributed. Martin (Professor Emeritus, University of South Florida) summarise these as follows: 

 ‘The misconception that workers can be meaningfully ranked is based on two faulty assumptions. The first assumption is that each worker can control his or her performance. Deming (1986, 315) estimated that 94 percent of the variation in any system is attributable to the system, not to the people working in the system. The second assumption is that any system variation will be equally distributed across workers. Deming (1986, 353) taught that there is no basis for this assumption in real life experiences. The source of the confusion comes from statistical (probability) theory where random numbers are used to obtain samples from a known population. When random numbers are used in an experiment, there is only one source of variation, so the randomness tends to be equally distributed. This is because samples based on random numbers are not influenced by such things as the characteristics of the inputs and tools (e.g., size of the beads and depressions in the paddles) and other real world phenomena. However, in real life experiences, there are many identifiable causes of variation, as well as a great many others that are unknown. The interaction of these forces will produce unbelievably large differences between people (Deming 1986, 110) and there is no logical basis for assuming that these differences will be equally distributed.’

Results have gone up or down. What does this mean? The perils of best-practice carousels

In schools  an increase or decrease in outcomes is often assumed to demonstrate a palpable difference in quality of the teaching process. Especially as regards the exam performance of teachers’ (or departments’) classes year-on-year results. A drop in results is thought to be the product of inferior teaching, and higher results to be the product of improvements. This is probably often wrong. 

Personally I experienced this when working as a GCSE RE teacher. We were a dept of 4. We used the same resources and assessments with our classes. Over a 4 year period each of us was apparently the ‘best’ at getting positive residuals and at some point each of us was also the worst. One year (because we had two classes each) I was each of these simultaneously. 

The same can occur between schools. In a town near mine there’s an English dept best practice carousel. Each year HoDs are told to confer with the dept who has the best results (for a similar non-selective school). Twice in the past three years the depts sharing best practice have fallen foul of an inevitable regression to the mean- embarrassingly swapping seats from workshop leader to delegate.

Of course, learning is not entirely random. There is a link between teaching and the learning elicited in students. It’s just rather more complex and murkier than we often assume. Different teachers and different methods will likely have a greater or lesser effect upon learners. But this effect is often eclipsed by other variation. 

Common and special cause variation

To consider things in a more nuanced and statistically literate way, we need to understand two causes of variation: common and special causes. Common cause variation is the variation which is always present in a process. It’s effect is somewhat predictable.  Special cause variations are sporadic and unpredictable – driven by events or processes which are in themselves unusual.  Bill NcNeese uses commuting times to illustrate the difference. On a normal day we might not be able to predict exact commuting time – but know it’s likely to be between 20 and 30 minutes. Common cause variations in traffic flow, red lights, pedestrians etc interact to produce travel times commonly in this range. Occasionally there will be special cause variations – a flat tire for example. This could add hours to travel time. 

In education it is very common to confuse the former for the latter. And to assume a degree of individual volitional responsibility for outcomes which belies the complex dynamics behind variations between  relatively small sets of exam grades. It’s all too easy to conclude that great results are largely the product of a deliberate and transferable strategy. 

What is important here is to recognise that no amount of tweaking will radically change the common cause variation. To shift things significantly we would need to move house, change job, change route or change the means of transport.   The conflation of both types of variation into is probably what lies behind Prof Coe’s observation that in order to improve a school, remarketing and changing pupil intake is a plausible (but empty) route to making it look like the ‘improvement’ has worked. http://www.cem.org/attachments/publications/ImprovingEducation2013.pdf  

However,  we should probably expect variable and somewhat unpredictable outcomes. Variation in learning was famously captured in Nuthall’s seminal work The Hidden Lives of Learners. A summary of which can be found here. My talk on the same theme is available here

Pointing out the inevitably of variation – of results likely doing down as often as they go up is hard to do without sounding like an apologist for failure. However, that’s the reality for many of us. It is possible to accept the inevitability of variation whilst also committing to focussing additional resources and attention upon those who seem most disadvantaged. 

Special causes of variation – may need direct intervention and *may* be the direct responsibility of the person closest to the variant. This is an unforgivably cold way of pointing out that from time to time there will be significant issues and incidents which demand our attention and care. As classroom teacher these issues may pertain to the life experiences of individual students. As a school leader there may ‘special causes of variation’ in the lives and practice of teachers. In either case, whilst these may impact upon that year’s exam results, they may not. Either way they may represent needs which it within our role to respond to.

Equally there may be special causes of variation which are not transferable or relevant to others. In one school, for example, the Science dept were promoted as bastions of ‘best practice’ because of a significant upturn in results. Their results’ improvement exceeded the undulating variation we might expect from general causes of variation. However, it was also the case that in that year there was a ‘special’ change – the switch from all students taking triple science to mixed provision where some students dropped down to dual science. As a result overall grades improved.

Regardless of the specific causes behind changes, exam results are a lagging measure – coming at the end of a course rather than triggering action, questions or support in the moment.   

The problem is, we’re not very good at reliably identifying good teaching.  We often downplay the unknowledge which permeates learning. Acknowledging most or all of the following but perhaps not quite realising their full implications. 

  • Lesson observations have limited reliability. Often trained observers grade less successfully (against longer term learning measured in tests) than untrained ones. 
  • Exam result variation is shaped significantly by cohort and class variation as well as the limited reliability of standardised assessments . 
  • Variation in pupil aptitude/prior knowledge/ability is far from randomly distributed between (and often within) schools. 
  • There is less than we might assume which passes as ‘research-based’ practice when it comes to specific ways of teaching specific ideas to specific age-groups – beyond ‘time on task’ being associated with more learning. 

The variation in performance of those teaching different classes is not as random as in Deming’s set-piece. However, for those of us judging a teacher and their class, in the moment or even at the end of the year –  given our unknowledge of the domain, the inner workings of students minds, and the long-term impact of any given lesson or sequence of them – we are often essentially none the wiser.  

But workers need managing. Teachers need to be performance managed. Schools need to improve their practice (or so the prevailing narrative mandates).  And so, performance is often managed via exam targets. And professional development often entails the sharing of best practices which may or may not actually be better than the status quo, and which may or may not be applicable to our particular context. 

What about the wider system?

It can be helpful to use Deming’s Red Bead Experiment (or other devices) to prompt a change of thinking. We can get caught up with the specific processes which we have become familiar to such an extent that we can’t imagine outside of them.  

We imbue them with a solidity and special efficacy which obscures their contingent nature. Taking a step back, considering the complex system of which individual actions are a part, and exploring more strategic changes can bring improvements which would never result from a narrow emphasis upon individual performances within a rigid system.

To return to Deming’s parable. We could buy bigger paddles; consider optical sorting technology increase the frequency of dips; or obtain a different bead mix. We may also identify practices which can be cut without any particular loss. In Deming’s case he included a step in which beads were tipped back and forth between containers. This was taught to new workers as integral to the process but in reality had no impact upon outcomes. 

In schools, iconoclastic thinking can be helpful. Encouraging us to rethink the status quo. Or, more specifically to think outside of it. We will likely find habituated practices which we can stop without any particular loss. Focussing on improving the efficiency of dominant practices and processes might help, but it’s likely that we can make bigger gains (or merely cut out inefficiencies) by changing or eliminating some altogether. 

In recent years – the cutting of the ubiquitous high frequency ‘data drops’ is a good example of the later change. For a time, improving a school involved demanding that teachers and leaders did data drops (and analysis, and interventions) more often. It took a long time for the penny to drop that we could cut these in half (or more) gaining time and losing nothing. 

More recently the cessation of apparently essential PD monitoring and evaluation processes rendered irrelevant by covid related disruption and CAGs are another.  Often, there are alternative (and perhaps better) ways to meet particular ends than the most common ones. The disruption caused by Coivd19 may have led to some positive changes (as well as the pruning unnecessary practices). Digital parents evenings, self-marking quizzes, the judicious use of recorded explanations etc may all continue in future. 

This year, in comparison to other years, has been marked by special cause variation! Systems that coped well in more normal times are under strain – or overwhelmed. This is, of course, hugely challenging for students, leaders and teachers who have come to expect a degree of predictability and stability from a school year. 

The temptation is to argue for sweeping changes now as we rebuild. Perhaps the provisional socially constructed nature of what went unquestioned as ‘business as usual’ has been made clearer to us in its absence. 

In particular attempts to slip back into a management process which leans heavily on the last three years’ exam results to inform intervention, improvement, support and development will, necessarily need re thinking. It is likely the system was less reliable than we assumed. It is clear that such an approach is simply not viable – for three more years at least!

However, in the complex system of schooling in which we work, we do well to be skeptical of urges we might have to leap on obvious solutions and wholesale changes. This issue is explored here by Matthew Evans

We will benefit from a return to the order and regularity of more normal practice, despite its inherent messiness – hopefully soon. However, I hope that the exceptional moment we are living through may help us engage more critically with business as usual in future.

Embracing the Impossibility of Teaching.

You Should Know This:

‘I really hate it when teachers say things like: “you should know this” or “this is Year Seven work” or “this was in your KS3 textbook [you] should have learnt this”. It makes me feel even more pathetic than I already am!’

Year 9 Student. Focus Group – Written Suggestion.

A student in my Year Nine focus group wrote this in response to the question: ‘What would it be helpful for your teachers to understand about your experiences in their lessons?’ Repeating similar focus groups across three secondary schools, I found such moments were common. Follow-up conversations with teachers and students revealed that the words ‘You Should Know This’ were typically uttered as part of the following sequence.

First, the teacher finds that some students do not know what they should for the planned lesson to work. This leads them to tell the class ‘You Should Know This’ (or words to that effect). They may illustrate this point by reminding students of when they ‘learnt’ it. The teacher then often proceeds to teach the class as if they did know ‘this’, despite having just established that some students did not.

Last year I explored the diversity of pupil experiences which this ubiquitous moment reveals. ‘You Should Know This, rEDHome. Now, I would like to explore what it reveals about the teaching experience. How do we teachers make sense of, and make decisions within, the complex reality of our role.

Fantasy and External Reality

‘Fantasy is a double-edge sword – it solves problems and gives expression to wishes at the same time that it denies external reality.’

The Culture of the School and the Problem of Change, Seymour B Sarason

Fantasy: The faculty or activity of imagining impossible or improbable things.’

(from : Oxford Languages)

The sense of frustration wrapped up in the should of ‘you should know this‘ – that things ought to be different – is rooted in our desire for an improbably fantasy to be realised. We would prefer it if events in our professional lives followed a storyline in which we play a noble, integral role. However our relative ignorance of other minds, the diversity within our classrooms, and the practical constraints of our job will inevitably ensure that individual students’ learning often fails to follow the course we have mapped out.

As Graham Nuthall writes

Because of individual differences in prior knowledge, as well as the differences in the way students engage in classroom activities, each student experiences the classroom differently, so much so that about a third of what a student learns is unique to that student; it is not learned by other students in the class.”’.

The Hidden Lives of Learners, Graham Nuthall

As a teacher, am I doomed to repeated moments of frustration when events fail to transpire as they ought?

In a sense, yes. The job presents impossible challenges.  But if you’re a teacher you probably know this already!

US Sociologist Seymour Sarason, spent his career working with and interviewing US teachers, he stated that the ‘modal teacher’ had come to accept the inherent impossibility of their task (and that administrators were often blind to it). Most teachers he met were of the understanding that achieving uniform success was an impossibility.

This need not be as demoralising as it sounds. Accepting the limits of any attempt to rationalise and inform actions within a complex system can be both cathartic and empowering. Mary Kennedy’s work around the persistent problems of teaching is a fantastic example of this approach. Her starting point is the recognition that the challenge of teaching multiple individuals simultaneously will inevitably produce persistent problems which we can respond to more or less effectively. However our responses will necessarily entail considered compromises. There is something powerful simply in the act of sharing this language. The sophisticated but optimistic story Kennedy tells about teaching is an appealing one. It allows a more nuanced and practical response to the inevitable challenges of teaching.

Complex systems will resist our attempts to control them and defy efforts to neatly resolve the challenges and contradictions which they entail. Frustration at complexity merely existing is wasted effort.

We might prefer that things were other. But they are not. Just as King Canute would have been foolish to rail against the tide’s refusal to follow his bidding, we achieve little by willing that the system was merely complicated and amenable to resolution rather than complex. This complexity denial is driven perhaps by our belief (or desire) that the system is essentially rational, knowable, and fixable. Winnable even.

Perhaps, deep down, we suspect otherwise but find this thought hard to countenance. To do so is to question the validity of our own efforts, the sacrifices we make, and the meaning we take from our jobs.  Avoiding this troubling thought can, ironically, lead us to double down on our efforts. Striving harder to reach a particular end, or at least to absolve ourselves of responsibility when (as we already suspect) it is not adequately realised.

Quiet Desperation: Being a school, of doing your best but never being good enough.

In one workload interview I conducted a few years ago, a hard-working but demoralised senior leader described the challenge she felt daily of ‘being a school, of doing your best but never being good enough’.

Most people, wrote David Henry Thoreau in Walden, ‘live lives of quiet desperation.’ Though there are moments of joy, significance and fun, quiet desperation is also a common feature of the teaching experience! Despite its ubiquity this moment is rarely analysed beyond the immediate emotion which it induces. This partly a consequence of the busyness of the job and partly that of complexity denial.

We, or those for whom we are working, may need us to work as if complexity didn’t exist. Maintaining this fantasy is, in itself, hard work. However, in the moment, with oft harried minds and limited cognitive slack it may seem preferable to stopping, looking up and recognising a deeper problem.

Thoreau went on to suggest than some men [sic] ‘live lives of resignation, which is but confirmed desperation.’ Friends of mine who have left teaching cite the pressure of the impossible demands as a major factor. Resignation can also be a state of mind of course.  It is a mindset which jaded professionals may feel drawn to.  We may take a kind of resigned solace in recognising ahead of time that complexity will frustrate the latest popular but naïve attempt to resolve an intractable problem.

Of course silver-bullet solutions which promise to fix wicked social problems by tampering with schooling will fail. An awareness of complexity, and experience of working within the education system for a sustained period will (hopefully) teach us this. Over-time we may become anaesthetised to naively expecting these fixes to live up to their initial hype.

How though can we avoid cynical resignation? Merely pointing out that any individual story fails to accurately capture the system, or that individual programmes and projects will fail to tame it is fairly redundant. Of course they do and of course they won’t. Despite the challenges of working in a complex environment we need make practical decisions. I would like to proactively engage with persistent problems rather than deny or bemoan them. There is, I hope, a middle way.

The Far Side of Complexity

US Supreme court judge , Oliver Wendall Holmes Jr once wrote

“For the simplicity on this side of complexity, I wouldn’t give you a fig. But for the simplicity on the other side of complexity, for that I would give you anything I have.”

Oliver Wendall Holmes Jr

This simplicity is a mindset as much as it is a particular set of ideas. It includes the recognition that any given map which we rely on to make sense of and inform our actions is provisional, sketchy and subject to change – both because we will encounter new perspectives and ideas and because the terrain which we are navigating is itself in a state of flux.

We need stories, mental models and maps to make sense of our place in the system and inform our actions.  We can use them (rather than be dictated to by them) if we hold onto them rather more loosely.

‘You should know this.’ This statement expresses a wish but denies external reality. Existentially it won’t help me to dwell on the frustration which it might provoke. Practically the moment presents me with the need to act in a way which acknowledges and then works with the impossibility of classroom teaching.

Sometimes, when it becomes clear that some students do not know what they ‘should’ , I can pause, change plans and explaining ‘this’ again. Sometimes I may need to accept that ‘this’ will have to be skipped over today. The finite number of lessons available and predetermined course content might mean this is a necessary compromise. Overtime, I may be able to reduce the frequency of such moments – but I suspect they can never be entirely eliminated.

Our individual classroom teaching experiences and those of each of our students  are shaped, to some degree by the system in which they exist and the assumptions upon which this system rests.

Sociologist Seymour Sarson points out that this system will inevitably function differently for different students. 

[A graded school system,] taking a new crop of children every year at five [to six] years of age, moving them through their studies in “lock-step” fashion ‘til graduation, makes an assumption about the equality, motivation, and performance for children of similar age that the reality of individual differences rudely challenges.

‘You should know this’ moments are inevitable. Our responses can be more or less effective. Different teachers may choose to make different compromises in responding to them. Stating that reality should be different may be cathartic but we need to tread carefully.

The individual student feels worse, ‘even more pathetic’ (in her words) after these moments.

I am aware that the mental state of individual students is not the direct product of any single teacher’s rushed utterance. Equally, the word ‘should’ may be used by a teacher merely to explain necessary prior understanding prior to the introduction of a new idea. There may not be any blame implied on the students part.

However, at times, working with focus groups in a various secondary schools, I did get the impression that harried teachers sometimes transferred onto students their need for teaching to work as it should. I wonder whether our need for a naive model to work juxtaposed with palpable evidence that it isn’t produces a problem which we resolve by jumping to one of two equally unhelpful conclusions

  • It must me my fault- clearly I’m not teaching properly.
  • It must be the students’ fault – they are not learning as they should.

My colleague Dan Boorman often speaks about the irrational work and anxiety produced when we scramble around trying to prop up a model of schooling which clashes with reality. If we intend to navigate a career in education it may help us to remember that dwelling on how things ‘should’ be is rarely helpful.

  • It’s not our job to defeat complexity. We should resist attempts to tell us that it is. Especially when the source of this unreasonable demand is ourselves!
  • The existence of ‘persistent problems’ are neither an affront to our professionalism or our students’ adequacy. They are built into the model of schooling within which we work.
  • The small stories which individual students, teachers and leaders are living are important, impossible to control, and largely hidden from us.

Two perspectives have helped me to reflect on of the meaning making which professions, like teaching often involve.

Map-Making

In The Road Less Travelled, M Scott Peck, frames humans as explorers, navigating a complex and changing landscape. In doing so we develop mental maps of the world. These maps guide our behaviour but are only ever provisional. They need constant revising, sometimes redrawing, something we are often reluctant to do. Instead, we exert considerable efforts pressing on and ignoring the dissonance under out noses.  Willing the world to conform to self-evidently flawed mental cartography allows us to defer the strain and uncertainty involved in redrafting it. But comes at a cost.

Stories

What story do I tell myself about my role, about what I am and should be doing, about the effect I can ave upon others? What are the dominant stories that others society, policy makers, leaders, students, etc tell? Stories are vehicles for meaning. With them, we make sense of our experiences in the world. Their internal logic can motivate particular actions.

Buried in a book exploring the role of data analysis in US schools and colleges, is some interesting advice. Much data analysis, the authors suggest, is presented without consideration of the actions which it might inform. Their advice (attributed to Michael Shriven) is to think carefully about the story one wishes to convey.   

No data? Tell the story. Data? Show the data and focus on the story’

Creating a Data Informed Culture in Community Colleges, Phillips & Horowitz, 2017

A cursory analysis of the role of social media in recent months seems to confirm that stories can often Trump (!) data when it comes to the meaning we make of complex events and the actions which these narratives can inform.

The maps and stories we use to make sense of our roles, the tales told by others about the same, and the narratives we share in formal and informal communities contribute to our own teaching experience and those our students and colleagues.

 My next two posts will explore our internal cartography and story-telling respectively.  

More of the same? On Teaching during Covid 19

On Tuesday morning school took a somewhat dystopian turn. My yr13 Psychology lesson was interrupted by a tannoy announcement

There has been a confirmed Covid case in yr13. Please can students and teachers of yr13 continue to wear masks until we have determined which students will need to self-isolate and removed them from lessons.’

My mind was already crowded – taken up by the demands inherent to teaching a live lesson and streaming to students already isolating at home. I continued to explain the methodological flaw in Lombroso’s research whilst juggling the following concerns

  • Well-being: Is maintaining a modicum of regularity helping distract students from wondering if their number is up – are they about to be picked out and sent home.  
  • Content:  Are they clear on the significance of failing to include a control group?  
  • Remote learners: Can they hear? Can they see the diagram? Are they engaging in the paired questioning/sense-checks which underpin my lessons? 
  • Noise : With windows and door open there is an intermittent stream of distracting sounds -everything from birdsong (a territorial Robin!)  to building work (an extension is being built to the dining hall) 
  • Personal Worry. My mind drifted towards questions about how safe it really was, being two meters or more away from potentially positive students, indoors, for extended periods.  

I suspect front of house became visibly ragged! 

Nevertheless, I carried on teaching – perhaps for me as much as them – as we awaited the deputy-head’s footsteps in the corridor. Some students seemed to be coping well, some were distracted, some seemed to find the paired-questions challenging. 

I couldn’t help all students adequately at once. So I picked the least worst compromise for the group. Or perhaps I picked the least worst compromise in relation to my own needs. Or perhaps I merely fell back on automatic behaviours, befuddled by the novelty of the situation. 

In areas with relatively low cases at least, the pandemic may not have substantially changed the nature of the job. However, it has intensified it, making many of us novices again as we grapple with new routines, timetables, classroom set-pieces and technology all in a context of increased isolation. 

I agree with Matthew Evans that the procedural regularities of schooling – the tracks which experienced staff automatically travel along – have been disrupted. The complexity of the landscape remains. We now navigate it as explorers rather than commuters. It takes a lot more thought and effort.

Teaching can be lonely. 

Teaching can be fantastic. 

Teaching is impossible. 

All of this was true before, but is more obvious and more pronounced at the moment. 

Teaching can be lonely.

We are physically isolated from each other most of the time. It is unusual for teachers to regularly observe and collaborate with others in the act of teaching. 

This isolation and the diverse views we hold about why, how, and even what we are teaching mean that even when we do talk about it, the superficial and generalised nature of our discourse often serves to prevent us from touching upon, and validating, the lived reality of our teaching experience. 

This point is often made of whole school CPD or improvement initiatives. Language around increasing challenge, targeting students, intervening, focussing on specific groups convey a desirable aim but often fail to translate into specific classroom actions. Where solutions are driven primarily by the need to demonstrate or ‘evidence’ success the effect is compounded. 

It happens in our ad-hoc conversations too. The familiarity of the language we use to describe our craft serves to disguise its vagueness. Georgie Bernard Shaw said that the US and UK are like two nations separated by a common language. I think that we teachers suffer from a similar problem. 

‘I was just teaching year 10, they were really hard work’. 

The brief chat sparked by this line may play an important role in our day – providing a empathy and a human connection.  I may agree that year 10 can be hard work and that it happens to me too. Sharing frustrations can be healthy – both to vent our feelings and because normalising the sentiment helps puncture the suspicion that such moments result primarily from our own individual inadequacies.

However, even if I know what subject you’re teaching I have no real idea of what this ‘teaching’ might actually look like. Nor, as it happens, do I know what constitutes ‘year 10 being hard work’ to you. There are likely complex reasons for this dynamic – which include the diversity of our beliefs, practices and experiences; the pernicious effects of accountability measures  the language (and certainty) which they promote, and the abstraction necessary in brief conversations bridging our relatively isolated professional experiences.  

In 2020 – with reduced lunchtimes, closed staff rooms, restrictions on meetings etc – it’s more lonely than ever for many of us. The windows of emotional support and camaraderie that keep us going in more normal times are closed. It’s not just the ad-hoc conversations with other adults that I miss. There’s much less scope for sharing a moment of connection, a joke, a surprising story, an ‘are you ok?’ with students when I’m hemmed into the ‘technical area’ around my teacher’s desk. Making space for these moments is important. . 

Meanwhile we’ve probably greater need than ever to share the specifics of challenging experiences – teaching online for example. Therefore a bigger challenge lies around our need to develop language and contexts in which we can critically discuss our professional practice – something that in many school settings ‘requires improvement’ at the best of times.  

Teaching can be fantastic.

The moment when students realise they have learned something difficult. Their reaction when they encounter a world-changing idea – when they glimpse the world hidden in a grain of sand. Those flashes of unjaded enthusiasm for learning about the world. These moments make teaching great. This week I started teaching a new topic in Psychology. One student broke into a huge smile, she has been looking forward to this since starting last year. 

Beyond these individual mountain-top moments are the slower-burning but deeper successes. The way in which a class learns to lean-in to activities, tasks or questions. The point when students feel comfortable calling out a question, comment, joke, or to highlight an error which I may have (probably have) made. The gratitude expressed for introducing them to a world or a career path which was previously unknown. 

These successes are exciting – but they are not the neat and predictable consequence of individual teaching brilliance. There are barren spells and times when progress slows to a glacial rate, making success hard even to imagine. Teaching requires a supremely patient and optimistic imagination. We need to be able to imagine a time when the confusion, anxiety, problem, ignorance, misbehaviour or lack of interest we see now will be replaced by something else. Sometimes it is, sometimes it isn’t. It isn’t my place to decide these outcomes preemptively. 

I sometimes lack this imagination. It’s the same with parenting too – I often despair watching my son get himself dressed (he’s 3), unable to imagine past the tangle and tears as he hops around the room, two legs in one leg hole adamantly shouting ‘Do it ‘SELF Daddy, do it SELF!’ Before falling over and  Refusing my help and testing my patience as I can feel nursery drop-off time slipping away.

But young people will often surprise me. Just yesterday I received an email from a student who seemed close to giving up back in July. It’s only short. Here it is in its entirety….

‘I’m in the library. I have a double free. I’m planning to work for both periods.’ 

Also, this morning my son dressed himself. 

Brilliant.

There are also the unplanned moments when we teachers are able to give advice, encouragement, practical help or just lend a listening ear to help a young person navigate a crisis, seismic change or turning point in their life’s journey. They are not less important than ‘learning knowledge’ but I do think of them as primarily haphazard and unpredictable. They emerge just as frequently as my teaching has drifted towards more traditional methods compared with earlier in my career. 

The biggest challenge (for me at least) is ensuring that I remain open to them, and maintain an attitude that allows me to recognise when to abandon plans, stop marking, cancel a meeting etc in order to respond to someone’s need now. One of my ‘tells’ – that reminds me to slow down- is that people and their problems start looking like frustrating barriers to my work rather than the core of the work itself.  This tell applies to both my pedagogical imagination and my availability in those moments when a child needs something from a caring adult. It also applies to my interactions with other adults! 

At present, the pedagogical challenges and individual student needs are probably heightened. Simultaneously, I am experiencing reduced capacity – practically and in terms of mental energy – to respond to problems as well as I would wish.  I can’t do all that I would like as successfully as I would wish. Again, nothing has changed. It has always been thus, perhaps now it is a little more so. 

Teaching is impossible.

The ‘you should know this’ moment  when we realise that some (or all) students are not up to speed with the ideas we knew had been previously covered – and hence should have been learned – is perhaps more common currently given their diverse experiences of lockdown learning.

Schools are complex adaptive systems (thanks again @head_teach). This perspective helps make sense of the challenges which we face working in and leading them. If it is a valid categorisation then it also follows that we cannot ever ‘solve’ these problems. We can merely reshape them – sometimes for the better – our focus on one significant facet of the system provokes changes and adaptations elsewhere. Complexity and compromise are built into every attempt we make at altering the contents of 30 adolescent brains, simultaneously, in line with a predetermined curriculum and in pace with the finite series of hour-long lessons which each school year affords us.

School systems and policies premised upon a naive or idealised understanding of the school – namely that adherence to specific procedures can neatly solve significant problems –  run into problems when they encounter the complexity of school reality. This dynamic is something I explore here (wicked problems). 

US Sociologist, Seymour Sarason after years of interviews and conversations with US teachers concluded that 

The modal teacher divides the adult world into two groups: those who understand this complexity and those who do not, and in the latter group they place many school administrators and most parents.

Where expectations, or even specific policies, are not informed by an understanding of complexity it is likely that teachers will feel the strain between what is expected and their daily reality. On top of this, a tendency to produce policies which ‘evidence’ excellence against a quality assessment framework which also fails to adequately engage with complexity means that official policy and daily practice rarely align neatly.  

In schools in which I’ve worked or visited there has invariably been a gap between official process and policy and daily practice. Experienced and wiser staff are often quicker to identify what they actually have to do, what they need to pay lip service to and what they can entirely ignore. Failing to recognise this dynamic can introduce a further type of impossibility – the expectation of doing it all. Whilst I appreciate that this dynamic may be endemic to complex systems, I am of the view that senior leaders do well to seek out and publicly ‘strategically abandon’ policies and practices which sit in the latter two categories. Without this the most hard-working and conscientious staff will often feel the strain. 

The need for pruning is probably high now as systems and processes have recently emerged and the perceived demands which they produce for staff of differing levels of experience may be significant. Equally, additional demands which in normal times were completed in from a need to comply rather than for their actual benefit – many performance management processes for example – could probably be pared back.

Teaching successfully has always been impossible – possibly more so now. I am lucky in that the subject which I teach is not significantly affected by physical restrictions to the classroom. The way in which I teach is largely similar – though the ways in which I can engage with individual students, check in when they seem confused or hesitant etc are somewhat restricted. I am also lucky in that demands in the form of meetings, training, and paperwork have been pared back considerably in my school this year. 

Nevertheless we are facing challenges around how to help students who were less successful during the first lockdown; how to engage with individuals when face-to-face interactions are limited; how to support students in useful study habits and techniques; how to engender motivation in a context of uncertainty – especially around exams and what constitutes the end to which students are working. 

Life in school at present includes new demands upon our time and attention. Revised timetables, new duty schedules, new behaviour polices, one-way systems etc are a lot to take on. We don’t have habits and routines to lean on. Habituated behaviours are triggered by familiar cues and can, quite literally, be carried out on autopilot. In novel contexts, even simple tasks are likely more draining as they require our deliberate thought and attention.One practical example is that many of us are now moving from room to room between lessons. We need to enter, sanitise the work area, set-up potentially temperamental tech, log into a ‘meet’ with remote learners and start the lesson. Previously we just welcomed the class and started. 

This is all happening in a context in which opinion pieces, policy makers, unions and exam boards express views about what we should or should not be achieving. 

Teaching is normally tiring – now it’s more so than ever. Each lesson is a performance seeking a particular response. Or more precisely seeking a set of particular responses from disparate individuals. There are frequently moments of breakthrough, humour, joy even, as well as frustration, irritation and confusion – within a single lesson. This pedagogical (and emotional) rollercoaster is repeated 5 or 6 times a day. Each episode has a tendency to produce work. This includes physical work – marking and planning in particular,  and mental work – making sense of what is happening and deciding what to do next. At the end of a teaching day we may be presented with further work via meetings, duties and catching up on emails.

By the evening, my laptop is often running multiple windows and tabs. It slows down and needs a restart. It’s common for me to feel the same! 

Teaching is impossible. Most of us ‘know’ this at some level. But we would do well to allow it to filter through to the expectations we have of ourselves and (if in positions of leadership) the demands we make of others. I also believe that it is possible to accept the inherent impossibility of the job without losing the sense that nevertheless, what we do can matter, can sometimes make a big difference to individuals. I can still strive to do my best whilst sidestepping the strain which cascades from an expectation that it should work perfectly and the false assumption that outcomes indicate my professional worth.  

Teaching can be lonely. Taking time to chat with colleagues, to share our feelings and lived experience and making space to consider pragmatic responses to specific challenges with them will likely help. 

Teaching can be fantastic. Despite the challenges, despite the complexity, and despite – or even perhaps because-  of the impossibility of ever mastering it, teaching can be a rewarding career. Playing a role in introducing students to new ideas and ways of thinking. Playing a role in supporting young people through life’s inevitable ups and downs. Both of these are worthwhile uses of our working lives. 

The challenges of the job have been dialed up somewhat. But the positives are still there. We can’t always succeed as we would like but we can help. In the long run our patience and persistence in the face of  individual daily challenges is most likely to lead to long term successes for our students. On any given day our impact on an individual student may be greater than we imagine. 

Hope

“Hope” is the thing with feathers –

That perches in the soul –

And sings the tune without the words –

And never stops – at all

Emily Dickinson

Hope is what protects us from proceeding directly from naive idealism to jaded cynicism.

It is great that many teachers enter the profession with ideals around what they can achieve. But is is likely that these will sometimes clash with the complex reality of the role. It is easy to become disillusioned – especially where the demands we experience (from ourselves and others) constantly imply that we should be doing better than we are. These ideals can actually push us into personalising the reasons for the dissonance gap between what we feel we should achieve and what actually happens. Or we may blame problems upon individual agents higher up in the educational system – policy makers or school leaders for example.

An interviewee in research I was conducting a few years ago described teaching as a role in which ‘Your best is never good enough.’

There are times to critically consider our own actions, and actors higher up in the system also need to be subject critique. However, at times I suspect our frustration that the system is complex drives a need to find someone or something responsible for it – an agent who could resolve things if only they acted properly.

In contrast complexity theory suggests that messiness, a degree of volatility and a system which resists our attempts to systematically implement neat resolution to challenging problems are innate to the system rather than necessarily indicative of individual failings.

On Quiet Desparation

The mass of men [sic] lead lives of quiet desperation. What is called resignation is confirmed desperation. 

Henry David Thereau

The isolation of teaching, the complex nature of the job, and expectations which belie this complexity make quiet desperation all too common. Our despair is perhaps driven by frustration that things are not working as they ‘should.’ This drives activity (often futile activity) which serves to assuage our sense of guilt but which may have little impact upon the problem. The extra challenges we’re experiencing now could also tip some of us towards resignation (either literal, or given the state of the wider economy, existential!). 

To summarise what has become a lengthy blog post. It’s understandable that we teachers feel particularly tired. We can’t change the situation. We can’t fix all the problems we see. We probably need to pace ourselves and accept that things will be messy, but we can act in useful and positive ways. This increases the chances of us coping during this period of increased strain. It will allow us to maintain space and mental energt for those moments when we can make a particular difference, and (though it may strain our imaginations to countenance it) over the long term we will contribute to some positive outcomes.  

I am attempting to navigate this term with these strategies: 

  1. As Jurgen Klopp knows only too well, increased working intensity can lead to injury! I am trying to pace myself – going home early whenever possible, streamlining marking and planning,  making time for other things and also (very occasionally) nothing. 
  2. I have felt the strains of isolation this year. I am deliberately using some of my non-teaching time to check in on and chat with colleagues. We’re restarting a ‘remote teaching’ video chat which 10-15 attended over lockdown. I’m also making contacts with a few teachers and writers in similar fields elsewhere.  Connection can be a positive in itself and we can sometimes get closer to sharing and reflecting on the specific realities of our experiences. 
  3. The complexity and impossibility of the job is more prominent. When it arises I’m trying to remind myself that it was always thus and that all I can do is look to the next specific action I can take. Now more than ever I need a patient and optimistic imagination.
  4. I think that the student experience is more isolated too. Normally by now I would have had individual conversations (in ad hoc fashion) with most of my students and mentees. This is now now happening at random so I’m trying to build it into my day. We’re also restarting pupil voice initiatives in which we’re trying to get a better picture of the lived experience of remote learning, and school in semi-lockdown from our students.
  5. The disruption to routine, and need to provide support to remote learners has prompted me to think more carefully about my teaching habits. Conversations and shared examples of teaching with colleagues at school and in similar roles elsewhere are something I am trying to build into the next term.
Bird, Animal, Art, Abstract, Watercolor, Vintage

September, ‘robust remote learning contingency plans’ and the wisdom of trolls

Grand Pabbie | Disney Wiki | Fandom

How recent experiences of remote teaching; the observations of a US Sociologist; and (most importantly) Grand Pabbie Troll’s homespun wisdom* are steering my first steps in September and contingency planning for the Autumn. 

 

What did we learn during lockdown?

During lockdown, Dan Boorman and I hosted a forum for school leaders and research leads in which we discussed our experiences, current challenges, plans for the changing future and generally tried to help each other keep track of DfE guidance docs. 

There is a case to be made that our first forays into remote learning were driven by the needs of teachers, not students!  They were not  centrally ‘designed’ so much as they emerged. This emergence largely aligned with our need as teachers to dispense with our duties in a domain with which we had limited prior experience. 

After a while, in each school, most departments established a routine. Lessons were ‘taught’, tasks and assessments were set and marked, students were communicated with.  Eventually, teachers began to feel more comfortable with the process. 

Some employed video lessons. Some recorded explanations. Some set regular online quizzes. Some asked for work to be submitted via a learning platform. Some asked for photographs of work to be sent. Some sent out booklets and worksheets. Some updated students each week. Some did so each day. Some communicated individually. Some sent updates collectively. Some chased missing work. Some enquired for the reasons that work had been missed. 

What was not immediately obvious to us was the way in which this contributed to our individual students’ experience of remote learning.  

As a teacher myself I’m aware that we generally mean well (!) In many cases what I ‘need’ to do – explain new material, check understanding with my students, etc etc are mainly in my students’ best interests. BUT I also had a need to get my work done in a way which was manageable and (in my case) fitted around looking after two young children for most of the day. I was driven for me to get things done – email students, set assignments, share documents, chase up missed deadlines etc – in a manner which worked best for me. 

We teachers probably feel more on top of things when we have communicated all that we need to to each of our classes. In some cases, the lack of control and uncertainty we felt may have prompted work (on our parts) which served to help us feel more in control – but which students experienced somewhat differently. 

Students probably experienced much of the work pushed out by their teachers as a flood of information – much of which contained fresh demands. 

You may remember Connor – an A-level student I introduced in a previous blog. He told us that the trick, which normal schools pull off is breaking down a lot of new stuff into small, timetabled chunks. If as a student you can get up, go into school, pay attention and more or less do as directed then you’ll probably do ok. . He was overwhelmed by the sudden lurch to remote learning – soon feeling worried that as he was not up to date with every single task. 

Around half-way through lock-down students in three different secondary schools were receiving over 25 remote learning emails per-day. For a those who, until lockdown,  mainly ignored their school email account, and muddled through by getting up, getting in, asking friends about what homework is due, and following others to the next lesson – this ‘new normal’ could easily seem overwhelming. 

In school,  clear routines, fixed-length lessons and the physical presence of peers ensure that most students attend most lessons most of the time. At least leading them to the water of learning, as it were. In addition when many students are visibly (or vocally) confused, teachers often notice and adjust their teaching accordingly

The timetable also acts as to balance competing demands upon students’ time and attention. There are fewer interesting alternative temptations than at home. Furthermore,  whilst some teachers may lose sight of the wood for their own departmental tree from time to time – running multiple lunchtime catch-ups or setting ‘big tests’ which can disrupt sustainable study habits- , actual lesson time is generally pretty fixed. Even students mentally anxious about tomorrow’s big Psychology test  will attend (and potentially engage) with lessons in their other subjects each day. 

Being a student became a lonelier pursuit during lockdown. Successful navigation of the challenges inherent to learning multiple courses at once required considerably greater aptitude, motivation and resources than normal. Some students thrived – a few reporting a more positive and successful term than during normal schooling. However, it seems likely that a higher proportion of students experienced greater difficulty than would normally be the case. 

In our discussions, we agreed that remote learning was, broadly speaking:  harder to access, easier to stop, and harder to resume than  learning through physically attending a school. 

Now that we have had time to experiment and learn quickly, we may benefit from taking time at school and department level to deliberately design our remote learning provision – with lessons from our trial period in mind. How can we make remote learning: 

    • Easier to access
    • Harder to stop
    • Easier to restart 

The impossibility of the job, contingency Planning  and the importance of strategy

Yesterday. (7th August!) the DfE have issued guidance making clear that schools must have a ‘strong contingency plan’ for remote learning ready for within a month of the start of term. 

There were quickly a range of responses to this story. Some pointed out that schools had been doing remote learning since March. So the plan would be to return to doing the same. Another expressed concerns about the impossibility developing a comprehensive plan for a disruption of unknown time and length. 

The challenge school leaders face in developing a ‘strong contingency plan’  is that teaching a class successfully is probably impossible even before we add in the challenges unique to remote learning. As US Sociologist Seymour Sarson (1971) wrote: 

‘A graded school system, taking a new crop of children every year at five to six years of age, moving them through their studies in “lock-step” fashion til graduation, makes an assumption about the equality, motivation, and performance for children of similar age that the reality of individual differences rudely challenges.’

The advantage we teachers have in more normal times is that there are established routines and procedural regularities which regulate what we do. Whilst we occasionally feel overwhelmed by the impossibility of our jobs – the regularities and routines of school life prompt us to welcome the next class and do the next thing anyway. We can’t feel compelled close every gap we see, as soon as we see it, because we have year nine coming in next. So we muddle through, doing the best we can. 

AS Grand Pabbie would have it, we do the next right thing.

MagicalQuote — Pabbie: When one can see no future, all one can do...

Ironically, I’m beginning to think that accepting complexity and then seeking to do the next right thing is probably the best strategy for sustaining a long career in teaching. 

The trouble with new initiatives is often that they are framed as  solutions to a complex problem which is not amenable to being neatly resolved. Take the lockstep conundrum outlined by Sarason above – we teachers could go slower, go faster and provide extra help to those who struggle,  or  we could attempt to teach multiple lessons at once. Each option is challenging (the last often impossibly so) and each would benefit some students more than others. 

If teachers sense the expectation that our strong contingency plans must neatly tackle all of the challenges of mass schooling – remotely – then strong emotional responses are likely.  As Sarason wrote (of the US teachers he interviewed in his work)

‘The strong feeling that teachers have about the complexity of their task stems from the awareness that they are expected to bring their children  (if not all, then most) to a certain academic level by a time criterion in regard to which they have no say. Faced with numbers and diversity of children AND the pressure to adhere to a time schedule presents the teacher not with a difficult task but an impossible one.’

Demands made of staff with an eye over our shoulder – with a view to evidencing excellence for our accountability ‘partners’  – risk being counterproductive. It wasn’t long ago that many of us had systems which sometimes backfired in producing experiences like this: 

‘Sometimes I find I’m doing things with data rather than necessarily marking and planning, and I think, ‘Why?’ ‘Why?‘ Because the marking and planning will have far more of an impact on the children and I’m doing this because somebody tells me I have 12 to do this because I have to prove what I’m doing rather than just being able to get on with what I’m doing, if you see what I mean.’

(Classroom Teacher, Secondary School, Data and Workload Research, ATA & NCTL) 

We do not want to saddle staff with the need to evidence that they have robust contingency plans. We want them to develop one – whilst successfully navigating the challenges they whilst face teaching full timetables. 

We, and our students can only really do one thing at a time. Creating a context in which we are all best placed to do useful things, one at a time, is probably more important than writing out a remote learning scheme of work in addition to our regular teaching tasks. 

As a teacher, I would like to have concise explanations and carefully designed google forms for my course. I now have some, and the capacity to make them. But the idea of doing it all is daunting. Furthermore, I am concerned about the likely disparity in knowledge between different students. Some seem to have learned successfully, many not so much, some not at all. The challenges innate to teaching – moving a group of individuals forwards, simultaneously, from different starting points, and with different abilities and motivations, seem greater than normal given the diversity of lockdown learning experiences. 

Sarason concluded that ‘the modal teacher divides the adult world into two groups: those who understand this complexity and those who do not, and in the latter group they place many school administrators and most parents.

This is where steering schools seems particularly challenging. We want teachers to strive to do the best they can for their students – but we don’t want to make unrealistic demands which can serve to compound the difficulty of what is already an impossible job!  In some schools unreaslisable demands are explicitly made by leaders – i.e. ensure that all lessons are ‘fully differentiated’. In others teachers infer the same message though it is not necessarily directly stated.  It is these sorts of expectations which, I suspect, produce the worst sort of workload strain. It was, expressed by one of the interviewees in my MA research as ‘doing your best but never being good enough.’ 

In my experience, this state of mind is the one in which I am most likely to get side-tracked by tasks which might help me manage my worry by feeling busy, but which have limited utility. 

It is sensible to develop a clear remote learning strategy. However to reduce the chances of  staff returning to school in September feeling as overwhelmed as Connor did when he opened his inbox, then we will need to carefully consider the demands we make of staff and how they are communicated.

The importance of strategy: 

Before we explore an example departmental plan- in the context of my A-level Psychology teaching – we need to consider the need for an overall strategy. 

Designing remote learning across a school cannot be entirely devolved. Choices made by individuals or departments in isolation from each other could have a net negative effect upon students’ holistic experience.  Are students expected to follow their timetable each day? Can/should additional work be set or does learning need to fit into timetabled slots? How and when are students chased up for missing work/lessons etc? Who checks in with students to see if they are ok? What are we doing to identify and respond to challenges related to different experiences and learning in remote learning? 

Within the context of a wider strategy we can then support departments in working through the specifics of their own contributions. 

A remote learning strategy needs to be informed by consideration of what its core purpose is. What are we aiming to achieve through our remote teaching? 

Failing to consider this may explain how some schools seemed to simply move all off-line activity online. This lack of innovation perhaps reveals a move to replicate processes without thinking about their underlying aims. Some of these processes may not work as well remotely and we may want to consider the time-demands of remote learning differently to those of normal schooling. 

A remote learning strategy will also be shaped by consideration of the technology and set-pieces available to enact it. What are the tools available to us for achieving this?  

A remote learning strategy cannot simply be to ‘use Google Suite for education’. The previous questions need to take precedence. However, what we aim to achieve will be shaped by what is possible for staff and students. What tools will we use? Are staff comfortable using them? Can students access them? If not- what can we do to resolve the situation? How can we use the tech to foster useful communication – to, from and between students?

Lastly it will be influenced by a strong understanding of the pupil and staff experiences of remote learning so far. What have we learned so far? What structural decisions do we need to make which will influence the provision and experience of remote learning for our pupils? What are the areas in which we should leave space for departmental variation?

Deliberate collaborative development of ideas  and clear communication with staff is particularly important when the ad-hoc moments afforded by crowded staff-rooms and shared lunch-times be few and far between for a sustained period .

Furthermore, student voice – listening to the experiences and feedback we get from students (and parents) is essential. Here there is a fine line to walk. The accountability culture we work in, and the pressure many of us feel to get things ‘right’ can make it hard to seek and listen to. This, plus the time, energy, and often identify which we invest in what we do, makes  it all too easy to see feedback as personal criticism. 

We may feel inclined to ignore negative feedback because it challenges the efficacy of something which we have worked hard at producing. Or we may conclude that the mixed messages we receive – too much work, not enough work etc – indicate that making changes is futile as it’s impossible to please everyone

Alternatively, it is possible to accept too quickly the most vocal feedback and requests which we receive. This can lead to knee-jerk reactions which may well have unexpected negative effects and which hamper a school’s capacity to make strategic improvements.

However, with conscious effort it is possible to gather useful feedback about the remote learning experience. If conducted regularly then we stand a good chance of picking up on trends or issues which are shaping the experience for our learners and which may prompt changes to our processes. 

Remote learning strategy at at dept level…

In September.  I would like to create an environment in which me and my students are steered towards doing the next right thing. 

For my students, the next right thing is learning the next new idea and spending some structured time each week reviewing (or learning) ideas from earlier in the course. 

The course which I teach (Psychology A-level) has a topic based structure so that learning the next thing in year 13 is not dependent on knowing the specifics of a yr 12 module studied (or not) during lockdown. I appreciate that this reality will differ in different contexts. 

The next right thing need not involve panicked attempts to cram missed knowledge for high-stakes internal  tests. This is often disruptive to regular learning activity and of limited value as much of what is crammed will soon be forgotten. 

For me, the next right thing will be to focus on teaching new ideas as clearly as possible – and with a view to creating and reusing explanations and quizzes which can work remotely as well as in physical school.  

I also would like a build in regular (but not excessive) communication with each student. Over the Spring lock-down I eventually pared this down to weekly emails praising students for tasks completed/quizzes/lesson attendance and which normally included a personalised comment or question. There were also ad-hoc communications (prompted by students/parents/other staff) but I was keen to give momentum and build/sustain communication channels with students over time.

The above element – and an aim of encouraging greater peer-to-peer interaction are aspects I’m particularly keen to improve/refine through finding out what others are doig, and my speaking with my students when term re-starts.

We’re hoping to make a system which is easy to start, harder to stop and easy to pick up again after time away. We’re also keen to communicate the plan clearly with students to help reduce the risk of ‘catch-up’ panic, and to help reassure them that they can succeed despite uncertainty around the form schooling will take over the next year. 

The draft plan is as follows: 

We will aim to build a clear and predictable routine for year 12 In each topic, students will hear clear explanations, consider model answers and be provided with a quiz to check their understanding of key ideas.  The explanations will be recorded  for reviewing and we will offer follow up study sessions after each assessment (either within lesson or separately depending on scale of need).

We will explain to our students that they need to focus initially on getting into the routine of doing three things each week.  We will also make clear that should school close (or they need to self-isolate) then we will continue with the same basic process, and the same three expectations. We will complete these as much as possible within lesson time, at least to start with. We hope that  relatively quickly, students will be aware (and getting into the habit of!) doing the next right thing. 

Capture

As teachers we think that producing the following  resources along the way will be useful.  I plan to make a video explanation, by recording a google meet on my ipad, after I’ve run the same thing live with my four classes.  This timetable will help me to focus on doing useful things in my PPA time. It is hopefully a manageable demand and will lead to a useful resource by the end of the year.  It should help make ‘catching up’ as practically accessible as possible. 

Topic Teaching Modelled answer Google form quiz Exam pro links
For each specific sub-topic (i.e. ‘Ainsworth’s Strange Situation’ A short video explanation of the topic.  An example student answer. 
Question will be written as link – so students can try it out before seeing model answer. 
A short, self-marking assessment to check your understanding of the core ideas.  Example exam questions. 

Year 13 will follow a similar routine. The only addition we will make is that each fortnight we will ask them to try out the yr12’s google form assessment. If it highlights a weaker area for them they can access the available resources and/or attend the follow up sessions.  Over the first couple of terms they will review each module from year 12 a systematic and manageable manner. 

We’ll introduce these ideas to a number of students and hopefully use their feedback and suggestions to refine them.

For now, I feel like I’ve a clear plan for September onwards. The overall shape is in place but I am happy with the idea as the situation unfolds the specific content and weekly tasks etc can be refined and improved. In a sense, I have managed my worry about the uncertainty ahead but hopefully in a way which leads to useful action and prompts me to do the next right thing when the busyness kicks in…

The Hidden Lives of Online Learners

Nuthall, in the Hidden Lives of Learners exposed the diversity of experiences and learning – between students in the same physical classroom. Variation between how our students are experiencing remote learning is wider still. My next two posts attempt to explore and then navigate the complexity and challenges resulting from our sudden lurch to remote learning.  

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Image by Paul Kaspar

Mohammed, his school reports state,  is a ‘highly-capable hard working and conscientious student’. Met with enthusiastic praise of him at parents’ evening,  his mother shrugs her shoulders and tells you it’s nothing to do with her. She doesn’t need to nag him. He just quietly gets on with it. She’s clearly very proud of him. Two weeks ago, at 9:00am on  Monday morning, Mohammed logged into his school emails and immediately burst into tears. 

Olivia never receives such shining endorsements. Her mother is still very proud of her. She muddles through school, generally successfully – relying on more organised friends and her own quick-wittedness to keep her below the radar and out of trouble. Twice in the past couple of months she has dropped out of remote learning entirely – only for a few days each time- but now she feels permanently behind. She’s already worrying about her plans to be a lawyer and is writing off the summer to catching up with what she’s missed. 

Meanwhile, Jess is thriving. She doesn’t miss the daily commute, form-time or indeed much of what previously constituted her typical school day. She thinks her teachers have given just enough steer and the right amount of freedom. She appears to be learning more successfully than before lockdown and is developing fantastic organisational and study skills along the way. (read her thoughts and comments on the contrasting experiences of her best friend, boyfriend, and trainee teacher brother respectively here

Conor’s experience has been different. “Now it feels that everything is coming at you from one channel so it becomes more obvious what the scale of the workload is. The ‘trick’ ( school and the breakdown of learning) is gone.” (read his full comments here).

The complexity of the remote classroom: 

In some ways, little has changed, some students are sailing through, some are struggling, some need extra support. However, the proportion of students in each category has almost certainly shifted, and not for the better. Furthermore, in normal times we teachers and leaders are often able to anticipate and respond to the challenges, pinch points, and emotional outbursts which are a part of the school experience for many of our students. We also have systems and support in place for many of the wider life challenges which young people face. 

A number of these processes are overt and deliberate – they appear in our handbooks and we train new staff into how to implement them. Much of what schools are and do however is rather more tacit. Michael Polanyi stated, of tacit knowledge, that ‘we know more than we can say.’ Riding a bike is a form of tacit knowledge – we know how to do it or we don’t – but we cannot adequately convey this knowledge in words. Schools do more than we can say.  How much of this can and is being done remotely?

Whilst life can be challenging, in the main, humans are resilient. The young people above will likely be fine in the long run – however the situations they are in change over the coming months. However, I am still concerned that during this extended period of school closure it is harder to help students as we normally might.

We are no longer  experts in our students’ daily experiences and behaviours and the actions we can take to support them. The changes of tac and ad hoc conversations which would be prompted well before Mohammed burst into tears in front of us – are not easy to build into the online learning environment.

Our newfound naivety is not something to ignore. We can improve and learn through thinking carefully, through making the best bets which we can, and by working hard to seek the sort of feedback which can help us improve. Experience can bring expertise – though this is not automatic. Reflecting, collaborating with other experts and, most importantly, working hard to better understand how our students experience what we are providing can all help. Over time, we can hope to refine the working models which underpin what we do – so that the gap between our actions, and how they are received, is a narrow as possible – for as many as possible!

What was lost when normal schooling stopped? 

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Habits, routines and rituals:

Schools help us learn to manage time. They squeeze the future into a predictable repeating timetable. From a practical perspective this means that once Olivia manages to get up in the morning and come into school you would be foolish to bet against her learning something relevant, in some subjects on any given day. The new normal changes the odds considerably! 

Humans need some routine and predictability. Each year, I hear a number of year 13’s expressing the anxiety – anomie even- induced by a dawning realisation that what has seemed so solid and predictable for seven years will soon cease. For a lot of our students, this has happened rather more abruptly – and without any clear idea of how long this limbo will continue or what will come after it. 

For some this will have provoked anxiety. For others, initially at least, it will have been a welcome change – freedom from the arbitrary restrictions that a school timetable imposes. A head of year spoke to 47 year nine students recently. When he asked if they missed school only 1 of the 47 agreed. The others replied with differing degrees of no – from a shrugged ‘not really’ to an adamant ‘absolutely not!’.  

These responses can be interpreted in a number of ways. Perhaps it’s reassuring that most are untroubled – happier even-  with their changed life situations.  Perhaps they reveal very little – reflecting students’ bravado or idealised versions of what school closure represents rather than the daily reality they are experiencing. Just yesterday I was asked about how I’m faring in lockdown, I replied with a positive 8/10. Only careful follow up questions would have revealed the mood swings, negative days and frustration which has coloured some of my time in recent weeks! 

Alternatively we might see something else that has been lost. Schools (and the adults in them) are good at making students do things which they would not necessarily freely choose to do. In the long run, some of this is probably good for them. Not doing these things for a sustained period could be problematic.  

Physical peer interaction 

As a non-teenager it is unclear to me how big a deal this is. Does social media largely replace it? How much do face-to-face and ad-hoc interactions matter? Do the social media apps and digital spaces at most of their fingertips provide much of, or more than what is physically missing? 

Daily interaction with teachers

Many teachers are experienced and confident in their subject and the means by which they teach it. They also read and respond to students in a way which is hard to mimic remotely. This is the ‘magic’ of the classroom which Mark Enser writes about. In any given week each of the three young people above would likely experience at least one ad-hoc interaction with a caring adult. Perhaps a timely encouragement, a joke,  an acknowledgment of particular effort, or just a question about whether they are ok. 

Schools provide much more on a daily basis.

Food; prompts to to think both in ways and on topics which students would not encounter unaided; space for minds to wander as they do when they are bored;  time away from a screen; time away from home;  physical and mental first-aid; ad hoc life advice and course correction, plus all manner of other random experiences – some of which they will remember long after most course content has faded in memory.  

Why is he not working?

Conor is struggling because all that school did for him is being squeezed through one ‘channel’ and he is no longer an expert in how to process and respond to it all.  Many of us teachers are experiencing the same problem from the other side. 

Teachers have always had to be mind readers. We observe out students’ behaviours – writing correct answers; leaning back on a chair; pinching the child next to them; completing homework; grinning sheepishly – and then we try to infer the motivations behind them. Why did this child behave in this way? What do I need to say or do to elicit positive behaviours, to help this person and make learning more likely?!

Personally, the sudden lurch to remote learning feels very much like my first year in teaching. My own anxiety and uncertainty around the act of teaching has increased – in line with a commensurate drop in my confidence and knowledge of the basic building blocks of online learning. My capacity to read the learning landscape is low resolution at best, and the actions available to me feel rather more clunky (and less automatic) than I have become used to after 15 years of teaching. 

Maybe he’s just not motivated to learn.

I don’t see Mohammed crying. I don’t know how many messages he gets per day, what his home is like, or what other departments are demanding of him. I just see that he’s stopped working. That’s weird I think, Mohammed is normally a great student. Maybe he’s having problems with motivation. Low motivation is essentially a low-resolution proxy for all manner of unknowns. Bluntly adopting a strategy of raising Mohammed’s motivation could prove counterproductive.

It might feel like an explanation – but it’s a vague one at best, and essentially serves to mask all that I don’t know. Furthermore, it is quite possible that actions I take to remedy the situation – informed by my fuzzy picture of what is happening and limited understanding of how to effect positive change  – could actually compound the problem!

Motivation to learn is not really a thing. 

Motivation as a discrete generic attribute is not really a thing. 

Motivations – internal prompts to engage in particular behaviours such as school work  netflix marathons, real marathons, eating marathons, calling friends, arguing, going to sleep, getting out of bed etc – will differ for each of our students. 

How do students’ contexts differ?

We don’t know much of the physical environment and resources which our students are working in and with. 

A few weeks ago  one of my students was reluctant to share audio and video on a live lesson. I assumed she was not fully attending to the lesson , or perhaps just shy, and that if I could get her to try it out for a while, the lesson would improve, she would feel more engaged and would voluntarily repeat this in future. 

It turned out that she was working in a small conservatory, with her sister on another call, and an actual lamb which needed bottle feeding in her lap. She had turned her camera and audio off to hide their bleating (lamb and sister apparently).  A pressing need to practice animal husbandry  probably only rarely competes with our live lessons for students’ attentions, but noisy siblings and the following will often vary from house to house: 

  • Access to physical and digital resources 
  • Access to a calm work-space and wider environment
  • Time available – which may be limited by paid work, care-work, domestic chores etc. 

Our students’ bandwidth – literal and metaphorical – varies considerably. Even those in houses with pretty good internet connections (and 1:1 devices) may struggle to access a live lesson whilst siblings and parents are on their own calls. 

Bandwidth is also a nice metaphor for attention.  Our capacity to mentally attend is limited. Current events; ailing family members; aggressive family members; hunger; worries about the future; social media notifications; all of place demands on a student’s mental bandwidth. 

Habits and routines drive much of our day to day behaviour. They are learned fairly slowly (though how long it takes varies more than popular culture suggests) and are often highly sensitive to specific environmental triggers – the things which prompt them to kick into action. For some students their study space will trigger useful habits and routines, for others the kitchen table, their bedroom or the sofa will do quite the opposite. 

I was recently speaking with a couple of students about their potential return to school in ten days time. One has chosen to come in – she has a terrible habit of procrastinating when at home she tells me. The other is choosing not too – the travel, the hub-bub of the classroom, and the anxiety she feels at times all make the prospect unappealing and possibly counterproductive. 

Interactions with other people can boost or hamper momentum – recognition or praise from teachers, parents or peers for example, or unexpected events – a broken laptop or baby-sitting a sibling all morning while Dad is in an important work meeting. Once momentum is lost it can be really hard to get back on the horse. Work builds, emails stack up, this can prompt students to further retreat or fall into unhelpful behaviours rather than tackling what appears to be an unsurmountable (and growing) challenge. 

What problems has restricted schooling produced? 

So, Does it matter? Do current restrictions to normal schooling constitute a significant social problem? I think there is reason to be concerned –  but would recommend exploring the nature of the problem we likely feel compelled to resolve with caution. 

Some students have a lower quality of life now because schools are not functioning as normal.

This matters now and any steps we can take to reduce the effect of this change are worth exploring. This is an end in itself – without need to justify in relation to long-term learning gains or losses. Some schools knew this already – serving high numbers of disadvantaged students makes it self-evident and integral to what they are and do in normal times. Other schools may not see this so clearly – in part because, for most of their staff, significant social problems are more an occasional concern for a handful of students rather than a day-to-day reality for many.

Schools do more than they can say.

Over time schools have evolved into complex social systems which defy attempts to neatly summarise what they are and what they provide to each individual student who attends them. They are not actually magical – what they do is real, substantive and (in some cases) very important to the daily lives of students. However, as we may struggle to identity quite what ‘it’ is – we probably also feel uneasy when our normal mode of operation is halted. Listening carefully to students and staff may help us identify new ways of generating something of this magic in a radically different context.

What about the learning gap? 

Beyond core literacy and numeracy, at secondary school at least, students will likely forget much of what they learn in our courses. Specific knowledge gaps are, in the light of this observation, less of a concern in and of themselves.  However, schools provide a more level playing field than children’s’ homes upon which students can play out their GCSE and A-level courses. Increased unfairness is arguably bigger problem than the knowledge gaps themselves.

If all of year 10 or year 12 learned less because of school closures then there may be no significant problem for the long-term. The amount of content in a GCSE or A-level is arbitrary. The vast majority of us forget almost all of it. Grades serve mainly to differentiate between students – but cannot be taken as clear indication that they knew or understood any single thing. But – we like to think that grades are a product of effort (and perhaps ability) over a time, on a fairly level playing field.

The playing field never has been level – but as regards remote learning it is less so than ever. A small proportion of students may actually learn more as a result of the school closures. Many will struggle for reasons of access, time, space, bandwidth (literal and metaphorical) and the habits and routines and support which their school and homes foster.

What can we do? 

Over time I have become fascinated by the social complexity which can be found in schools – or even within a single classroom. It is, only helpful to explore this complexity. if it eventually generates clear and relatively simple actions for those of us who work in and with said complexity every day.

In my next post I will present what we are doing practically as regards remote learning within my Psychology department.

 

 

Jess – on contrasting experiences in lockdown learning

“The gap will be huge and I’m not sure if that’ll be good for the children who already suffer on the curve.”

Jess – on contrasting experiences of lockdown learning

Jess [pseudonym] has taken to online learning in a way which has amazed me. Across my cohort of 70 ish students, a handful *appear* to be thriving during school closure -probably learning more than they would when attending school and sitting through my lessons. They are the exception to the rule of course – but I suspect this minority experience is reflected elsewhere. 

In one of our check-ins, I praised Jess about her approach to remote learning which led to a short discussion. 

The non- italics are a discussion points which I posed. The italics are Jess’s response – fascinating in that she contrasts her experiences with that of her friend and boyfriend (studying in different schools) and her brother (training to teach in a fourth school) 

“I’m wondering if the gap between students in terms of learning will be bigger than usual this year as….

1 .Some students find it hard to study/can’t access resources/have contexts or face challenges that make remote learning a low priority.

2. Some students have taken on personal responsibility for learning their courses – in a way which exceeds what they might feel the need to do if sitting in lessons with teachers and peers each day.

What do you think? “

“Hi Mr White,

100% happy to put forward my suggestion! So here it is… I do think the gap will be massive and there will be students who probably suffer from that, as well as those who benefit.

I think the first reason / statement is true of itself – there just isn’t the resources available for some children / areas. My brother is training to teach secondary school children this year and he teaches in a school in [coastal town]  for his placement. He lives in [coastal town] too, so we facetime to catch up at the moment! He always asks my other brother about uni and me about school and I always check up on his situation too. 

It has been speaking to my brother fairly regularly which has made me realise how lucky I am.. the children there don’t want to be at school, most come from backgrounds where they just aren’t motivated or allowed to reach their potential (some are extremely vulnerable) and it wouldn’t be a lie if I said the school struggles to bridge that gap. He spoke to me about work set and I outlined roughly what was going on in my subjects.. he was really surprised at first as it would appear there has been more of a pause in the curriculum there, rather than the extended learning that we have experienced. 

I reminded him that… this was probably quite a comparison in both child attitude & education. All of that said, we are all in the same cohort A-levels wise and so yes, this does show exactly what you said – the gap will be huge and I’m not sure if that’ll be good for the children who already suffer on the curve.

The second point is me to a T! Although I haven’t felt as though I was underperforming when I was at school, I think it would be honest for me to say that I definitely do the most I can to feel like I’m doing ‘enough to satisfy’ which I’m sure, some people would think is too much. I think this second point is a good self reflection of the attitude held by individuals… my best friend  and boyfriend are at [two different schools] and so I have had an insight into their remote learning! [Bestfriend’s school]  have gone very hands on, intense and not a second of the day to breathe which I know, having spoken to her  isn’t as popular with the students as [the school] probably think it is! 

[Boyfriend’s school] are more relaxed than us but there is more ‘set work’ in that [boyfriend] will complete anywhere between 4 and 8 set lesson tasks, which he did say is to tick them over. But, he also said, he doesn’t like that this is all that has been done and so he does extra work for his own benefit. 

If I’m honest (and I know I’m a probably a little biased:)! ), I do think we have it perfectly balanced. I do plenty Monday – Friday and I do whatever I feel necessary at the weekends to tide me over till the following Monday. If I’m uncertain, I have lessons at least once a week with most teachers so can talk to them then or drop an email anytime I like – I think it really is great! 

Ultimately, the 3 schools have gone about it a little differently but us 3 individuals (who have roughly the same GCSEs) have had to alter our own lives, attitudes and readiness to strive for our best as we know that is all it will come down to next year.

I think it is a real shame, that some children aren’t as supported as they ought to be and I think sometimes we do take for granted the effort our schools, teachers and families are all willing to put in to making our school lives better. For the sake of some people, I wish more time was spent gearing them up and making them see that the attitude they have and how hard they work is directly proportional to the grades they will get out of it. I think it is a shame that they have to wait 2 years to see to see (in their results) that sometimes they didn’t work hard enough or get themselves into shape in time.

So, I hope that was helpful & not ranty! I didn’t want to come across like that, I just thought I would share my feelings about this unprecedented time and what I have considered, when taking time to carefully and considerately work through my alevels.

I hope you and the rest of the family are well,”

 

Lockdown learning

Lockdown Learning : 

Now it feels that everything is coming at you from one channel so it becomes more obvious what the scale of the workload is. The ‘trick’ ( school and the break down of learning) is gone. 

Conor’s mother shared (with his permission) their observations on the challenges of lockdown learning in a recent school CPD session. Conor’s story provoked more discussion and reflection than any advice sheet or guidance we’ve shared so far – and they have both kindly agreed for us to share more widely. 

The italics are Connor’s words, the non-italics his mother’s

Lockdown learning

Conor is an able student in a grammar school environment. In the past he has been a very independent student with regard to organisation and completion of work. He studies 4 A-Levels. In recent weeks he has found the experience of study in lock down overwhelming leading to significantly increased anxiety which has had a clear impact on his ability to work effectively.  Sleep patterns are disrupted and he can struggle with simple decisions as basic as choosing whether or not to go for a walk. The school is offering live lessons, email support and use of google classroom

Here are his comments on the overall experience of lock down study :

“School is designed to push you and get the best out of you with your learning and it does this by its structures. Lessons are structured , broken up designed to get you using your brain in different ways. Then in addition your day is broken up – break, lunch, travel to and from school, homework. 

Now it feels that everything is coming at you from one channel so it becomes more obvious what the scale of the workload is. The ‘trick’ ( school and the break down of learning) is gone. 

What work you have to do is set by the teachers but you have to figure out how to do it and make it work. You are the student and the admin person. There is a lot of time spent moving between emails, classrooms, resources – tasks take longer. In class a text would be read, discussed  and reflected on helping the information and connections to be absorbed more effectively. 

The following comments are more personal to Conor and his own learning:

 “I have always had a problem not wanting to disappoint teachers and this feels worse. I am aware some students will be really coping well in this environment and I get stressed that I feel I am not.

School is a tasked based environment with structures for study that work in school. We are now in an independent study environment probably more like university study but we are working with the school based system. I would prefer it to be more open – i.e read a book and feed back on it ( subject specific). When not in school this very task based system is demanding and there is too much to track.

I have got behind on tasks and struggled to focus but have been able to read a book from a university recommended reading list.”

Conor’s mother: 

“As a parent it has been an eye opener to see how he has struggled and needed a lot of support in this environment. Seeing his email feed made me very aware of the significant amount of notifications coming through all with a similar appearance. He works from his email first rather than going to each google classroom. He says this is because there are so many classrooms as some subjects it is one per teacher.  As a teacher I thought students worked via the classroom but I think this is often not the case. I began to think how overwhelming a Year 10 student studying 11 or 12 GCSES may find looking at their emails and seeing an enormous amount of new notifications.”

 

How We’re Using Video Lessons….

Remote learning is going to be around for a while yet.  It’s definitely worth developing my video teaching  and probably worth investing in some decent lighting! 

clip clip

I have enjoyed experimenting with a range of strategies and media over the past weeks. This term, it feels like we’ve settled on a reasonable response to the pedagogical curve ball we teachers were all thrown back in March!

It’s not in any way a finished product, but  feels like the bare bones are largely in place. I would be interested to hear feedback, suggestions and alternatives from elsewhere.

Here I will focus on the video lesson. I think they are really useful and would not try to teach remotely without them. In a second post I’ll outline the wider course structure and thinking behind it. 

In Psychology we teach live (and recorded) video lessons each week. This is because 

  • There is not a significant safe-guarding problem. Using Google Meet, only students with school accounts can enter freely. Generally, I ask students to turn off their cameras, though we do sometimes run video chats/group tutorials
  • Our  yr 12  Psychology students all now have some access to technology, most are keen to continue learning the course in some form, most have the capacity to do so during this extended lock-down. This is, I realise, not necessarily typical.
  • Video lesons can contribute much to a coherent remote learning process. 

Also, video lessons offer things which other forms of remote learning do not, or do less well, including: 

  • A degree of personal engagement – an chance to maintain relational proximity with my students.
  • Concise explanations, instructions and guidance can be given to multiple students at once. 
  • Feedback can be given and received quickly
  • Close as we can get to the classroom experience

Recorded video lessons provide some of the above  plus the advantages of reshooting and flexibility for student access. I suspect that the ‘event’ nature of the live lesson is useful as students attend at the same time, and may be more likely to follow it through if they know others are doing the same, at the same time. But this is mainly a guess!

I currently teach live- building time into each lesson to complete activities etc but also record and share the same lessons via Google classroom afterwards. The following link should take you to an example lesson:

This lesson was recorded using Google Meet on a laptop, and Notability on an accompanying I-pad. 

Gender in Psychology is the first in a module on ‘Issues and Debates in Psychology’. This module can be challenging to teach even in a real classroom. I try to support students by first focussing on core ideas which give them a grounding in each Issue or Debate.

NB: Because it’s a new topic, students do not all have printed notes to use alongside the lesson. I shared them digitally beforehand, but as some are limited to one screen and may not have a printer I’ve included the notes in my screenshare. ALso… I will be working on eliminating scary facial uplighting and the glean from my less than fully-feathered head in future!

notes

When planning,   I tried to think about how to use my explanation, and follow up task to help students grasp new ideas as efficiently as possible. Over time I have slowed my delivery, introduced the use of diagrams/bad sketches to explain new ideas. In the back of my mind while teaching this I feel like it is a little slow – but I’m aware that this may not be true and where it is true for some, it is not for others!

This lesson is to be accompanied by a google form quiz which I am sharing with the class tomorrow. This is the short term check point that they are working towards when making revision cards/diagrams at the end of the clip.

it probably only makes sense as part of a coherent overall programme. Our course structure has been informed by consideration of three questions

  • Who am I teaching? 
  • What am I teaching? 
  • How am I teaching? 

I will explore these, and share a video intro to the Psychology course for term 6 in my next post.

Women and Children First?

Which student groups should we prioritise when lockdown eases? 

375px-wreck_of_the_birkenhead

This phrase, attributed to the sinking of the Birkenhead,  reveals beliefs about values and duty. It represents a messy solution to an immediate impossible problem. There was not enough room on the life-boats for all. There was a need to act, a need to prioritise some over others. The line constitutes a clear rule with its own built-in justification. 

Why not high-earners first? Or healthiest people first? Or everyone born on an even numbered date first? Each has its own implied internal logic and values.  None can be objectively justified as ‘correct.’ 

 

Year 10s and 12s first

When schools start to reopen, the ACSL and the DfE (in one proposed scenario for schools re-opening) suggest that year 10 and 12 should be prioritised.  

“It is likely that we will need to reintroduce certain year groups in the first instance rather than fully reopening schools to all pupils.

“This could be particularly beneficial for pupils in year 10 and year 12 because they are studying GCSE and A-level courses respectively, and for pupils in year 6, who are due to go to secondary school in September.”  Geoff Barton, ACSL

Michael Wilshaw followed a similar line of reasoning when suggesting that current year 10 and 12 may now need to repeat a year. These suggestions rest on the premise that the ‘assessment years’ of schooling are those which students can least afford to lose. 

This preference reveals much about their implicit views of the value of education. Schooling is a complex endeavour, juggling multiple social objectives at once. It is natural that we want to simplify its goal. It is intriguing to see how much the accountability system has led union leaders to believe that educational activity in Years 10 and 12 should be prioritised over earlier years. This prioritises the orderly procession of students through the qualification system above wide questions about whose cognitive development is being most impaired by school closures. 

There is little direct evidence regarding which children and year groups will be impacted most by current closures. However,  if we buy the arguments of Bryan Caplan that the accumulation of the basic skills of reading, writing and arithmetic have the most durable impact on life-long outcomes, it might lead us to feel that our priorities lie with younger students. 

Of course, qualifications provide different life chances for individuals. However, Caplan argues that this is not because of what has been learned but because what they signal as regards competence, ability, stickability etc to future employers. The signalling benefits of GCSEs and A-levels may remain if the course length is reduced by for all students.

The logic underpinning the prioritising of 10s and 12s is not commonsensical to all. Here are some arguments against year 10 and 12 (soon to be 11 and 13)  being the ‘women and children’ who need to be brought back on board first.

  • Year 11 and year 13 are the point of measurement. Not necessarily  the point of greatest leverage or impact. If we have to rationalise our efforts to minimise long-term losses we may achieve more focussing elsewhere. 
  • The older the student the less crucial the learning. This is one of the reasons we allow students to increasingly choose what they study as they grow.   
  • Younger students may be less able to cope with the independent nature of home learning. They may also be less safe to leave alone for extended periods. 
  • The ‘gaps’ which appear in exam years are the product of problems which developed much earlier. 
  • Qualifications are not an indicator of specific permanent learning.  Repeating years or extending provision for whole ‘exam year’ groups is premised on a particular  view of the importance and longevity of the knowledge that would be gained. 

Even these points are perhaps not broad enough in that they focus primarily upon schools as conveyors of knowledge. This rightly dominates how schools normally allocate most  of their time and resources. However they generally have capacity to do this whilst juggling other important social aims. 

Prioritising the knowledge conveyed to specific year groups comes at a cost to these for some pupils in year 7, 8 and 9. 

School closures have disrupted the following for pupils (and their families)  across year groups

  1. Social-interaction and well-being. Being in school; meeting peers; engaging in well-worn routines and rituals; finding meaningful engagement in work and having efforts recognised.; getting out of the house and away from challenging home contexts; learning something new about the world. All  of these are important aspects of schooling. Aiming to provide most with reduced access to them may be preferable to prioritising more complete schooling for some. 
  2. Individual specific social, emotional and material needs: Some students rely on school and the specific support it can offer them. Either formally and directly via regular counselling appointments and free lunches with friends and caring adults. Or indirectly – the lingering conversations at the end of a lesson, the knowing glance and smile from a caring adult. 
  3. High quality child-care. A latent (but important) function of my efforts to inspire students with psychology each and every day is that their parents have their hands free to work, achieve important things, earn money, and pay the taxes that contribute to our NHS and my own salary.

Furthermore, of course, we may need to consider the risks of spreading Covid-19. This may be a risk-factor spread evenly across our pupil population – or it could be that older or younger students represent greater or lesser risks.  

Maybe the men could hold onto the sides?*

What if we  favoured getting most students in for some time rather some for most of the time? One way of doing this would be to divide up the day. Another (perhaps more amenable to transport and parents’ working pattern) would be to allow students to attend some whole days in each week or fortnight. Perhaps – though this may not be workable – based upon choice (i.e. allowing parents of yr7 and yr10 to have the same day free each week) rather than year group-based. 

To stretch the analogy further – maybe those who needed longer on the life-boat should be there as long as possible – even if the more able-bodied have to make up extra time in the water. 

Regions, trusts and schools do not face the same strain. 

It’s the same storm. But as a facebook meme told me last week – we’re not in the same boat. Some students have much greater need to be in school, perhaps full time. These individuals are not evenly distributed across the country. Each school may have space for ⅓ of their roll if we treble the space needed for each person. But some have a pressing need for more berths, while others are perhaps working below capacity when it comes to meeting non-academic pupil needs. 

Some schools have been meeting food needs for example since ‘closure’ began. Some have relatively high numbers of key-worker’s children and vulnerable students in school already. Other schools have been closed to students for weeks. Perhaps those who have been able to close are reasonably well-placed to divert unused resources to supporting GCSE and A-level learning. Others may not be. 

The current decision is impossible but still demands an answer.

This current crisis is throwing up impossible challenges.  Just as with the GCSE/A-level exam cancellations we cannot expect solutions to work perfectly but we can aim for making the least worst decisions. The same applies here.

It is worth at least considering whether what is immediately obvious to many within education is necessarily the least worst option overall. 

What about the Titanic:

On the Titanic, 74% of women survived, 54% of the children but only 20% of the men. Some officers apparently misinterpreted the nature of the ‘Birkenhead Drill’ – pushing off lifeboats with spaces and barring male passengers where no women or children were available to fill them. 

Long-term change

Eventually legislation was passed requiring ships to carry lifeboats sufficient for accommodating all passengers.

 


 

*I am aware that the holding on to the sides thing didn’t work so well for DiCaprio.

Thanks to earlier readers for feedback and suggestions for this piece. Residual over-writing and analogy stretching etc are all my own!